Leinster will need to hold firm line to make point
To get a handle on the scale of the climb for Leinster today, consider Clermont's stat with Toulouse. The sides have met 12 times over the last four seasons. Clermont have won nine of those games.
Can you imagine anyone else in Europe having that sort of stranglehold over the northern hemisphere's top club of the professional era? Clearly ability isn't an issue then.
Rather the criterion we always have to address first with French clubs in this competition is their interest. Clermont nailed their colours to the mast on this one before a ball was kicked in Pool 2, but having lost to Racing in the last round they are at a critical point here: if they give Leinster a sniff, then it could be all over. And by a sniff we mean a point, which realistically is what Leinster are chasing today.
Having missed the 2006/'07 tournament, Clermont came back a much stronger force, which coincided with the Kiwi coaching team of Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt. Their only home defeat in 10 games since then was to Sale, two seasons ago. Significantly, Sale murdered them at the breakdown that day, a crime which is much harder to commit under the current application of the law.
So while Clermont are not scoring as many tries as last season, Leinster will nevertheless have to deal with endless charges by big men in open country, and more to come from what is an exceptional bench. That's the Clermont game. And to compensate for their somewhat dulled attack, the French defence is excellent. Their form is not spectacular however (8/15), and it will be interesting to see what happens if they don't get their normal explosive start.
More likely it will be Leinster feeling the pressure. Starting without Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Brian O'Driscoll is like turning up to an ice rink in your runners. In which case the forwards will have to bear an extra heavy load.
This is tailormade for Sean O'Brien, who was underused by Ireland last month, and whose carrying will be badly needed.
Mike Ross is in the same boat -- ie underused, not as a carrier -- though he has a very tricky job on his hands with Thomas Domingo.
A tricky job all round. A point would be a good day's work for the visitors.
ASM Clermont Auvergne: A Floch; N Nalaga, A Rougerie (capt), G Williams, J Malzieu; B James, M Parra; T Domingo, T Paulo, M Scelzo, L Jacquet, T Privat, J Bonnaire, S Lauaki, A Lapandry. Replacements: M Ledesma, L Faure, D Zirakashvili, J Pierre, E Vermeulen, K Senio, T Lavea, B Baby.
Leinster: I Nacewa; S Horgan, E O'Malley, G D'Arcy, F McFadden; J Sexton, I Boss; H van der Merwe, R Strauss, M Ross, L Cullen (capt), N Hines, S O'Brien, J Heaslip, S Jennings. Replacements: J Harris-Wright, C Healy, C Newland, D Toner, D Ryan, E Reddan, S Berne, D Kearney.
Referee: W Barnes (Eng).